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Envoy Denies Intelligence Chief's Fall From Grace

Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has dismissed reports that military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat has been placed under house arrest, and that he was negotiating talks with Israel., an independent news website, reported on April 13 that Moustapha told Arab journalists that the reports were “efforts to spread rumours” conducted by Israeli, Arab and opposition media. Several websites had reported that members of the army and intelligence service, including Shawkat, had been arrested.

Moustapha’s comments were the only direct official response to reports that Shawkat, who is President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and one of the most powerful figures in Syria, had fallen out of favour.

Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice-president who lives in self-imposed exile in France, told the Beirut newspaper Al-Mustaqbal last week that the intelligence chief was ousted after he reported that the bomb that killed Lebanese Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh was planted inside his car. Khaddam alleged that Mughniyeh was killed in an area of Damascus that was under Shawkat’s control.

Al-Mustaqbal was founded by former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a car bomb attack in 2005. His supporters blame Syria for his death.

Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus in February 2008. Syria has delayed releasing its report on his killing, raising suspicions of internal divisions within Syria's governing elite.

Syria subtly quashed reports that Shawkat was under house arrest last weekend, by broadcasting footage of him on state-run Syria TV, during a report on officers graduating from a military academy.

Political analysts were divided over whether there was any truth to the reports. One said that while it was often "very difficult to distinguish between gossip and reality when it comes to politics” in Syria, “we also know that there is no smoke without fire. The regime is founded on different power players, and there is always hidden conflict between them in controlling the country."

Shawkat is seen as a controversial figure by the international community.

A United Nations report on Hariri’s killing cited a witness who claimed that Shawkat forced an Islamic militant to make a video claiming responsibility for the assassination two weeks before the explosion occurred.

The analyst suggested that Shawkat might be disposable. “If the regime could reach a deal to sacrifice him in order to maintain power, it will do so,” he said, “especially given that Shawkat does not enjoy the full backing of the Allawites.”

Members of the minority Allawite branch of Islam hold power in Syria.

Another political analyst in the country maintained that the internal report on the Mughniyeh killing had been delayed for political reasons unconnected with Shawkat, such as the possibility that it would implicate Saudi Arabia, and the need to ensure Iran was satisfied with the investigation.

“The rumours about the connection between Assef Shawkat’s house arrest and Mughniyeh’s assassination are far-flung,” argued the expert.

He added that while the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, “held the reigns of power in his hands, it is different under his son [Bashar al-Assad]. The regime is maintaining a balance among the powerful, and I don’t know whether it can abandon one of its central figures during this sensitive period".

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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